One of my favorite parts of the Season of Advent is the return to the Hebrew Scriptures to focus on several of the prophetic texts that, in Christian retrospective style, seem to foretell the coming of Christ. The most significant of these major prophets is Isaiah and, because of the anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death yesterday, I was unable to share a short reflection on the First Reading (Is 35:1-10) that belonged to the Monday of the Second Week of Advent. I feel that this particular passage is beautiful in a way that might get overlooked when too much attention is given, as is often the case, to the New Testament passages that seem more straightforward, narrative, and relevant to the contemporary Christian experience.
The poetic passage begins:
The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
They will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
This is the anticipatory setting for what is to come, for what the exiled People of Israel can expect as a result of the saving power of God. The next few lines strike as particularly moving when you consider the number of years, the physical burden placed on the hands and shoulders of the people in exile. In other words, this is not simply a poetic foretelling of some other-worldly heaven or eschatological reality, but a real-order consideration of what it would look like to be redeemed and to be returned home.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
With divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
Then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
I think the commentary offered by Gene Tucker in the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary is insightful for those who wish to romanticize the language of Isaiah a little too much. “For those inclined to hear such language as reference to a religious status, the biblical tradition provides a corrective. ‘Redeem’ and ‘ransom’ have political and economic meaning in the Old Testament. In the story of the exodus tradition, these terms, as well as ‘salvation,’ meant actual release from physical slavery” (282).
What does this mean for people in our day?
Yes, as Christians we can — as one among many ways to interpret the scripture — understand an implicit religious dimension here, the foretelling, as we’d put it, of the coming of the Lord. However, as women and men of the twenty-first century, does this passage from Isaiah speak to the hearts of those who remain exiled, are refugees, or are in some other way oppressed?
Does this passage challenge us in this season of alertness, waiting, attentiveness to the coming of Christ, to look beyond the spiritual meaning of the text to see the prophetic cry that calls for our participation? To work to strengthen the weak, to give voice to the voiceless with muted tongues, to care for the marginalized and forgotten and different?
As this passage reads, the splendor of God is made manifest, is revealed, and seen by the world in this return of the exiles, to the welcoming home of those who are homeless, lost, forgotten, and ignored. How can we live the prophetic word of Isaiah today? In what way can we, especially Christian women and men, be bearers and enactors of good news (Gospel) for the exiled?